Wednesday, March 19, 2008

All in the mind

When he was writing The Innocent, Ian McEwan was offered the opportunity to watch a man having his arm sawn off. By a surgeon, I hasten to add. Not randomly, in someone's back garden. It was for research purposes - surprisingly enough - but he was quick to turn down the invitation. He claimed that once he set foot in the operating theatre he would start seeing things as a journalist, and he preferred to describe what took place in his imagination, rather than what happened in front of him.

Could this be right? I thought. On the recent BBC2 programme Murder Most Famous the contestants were set tasks and challenges every day - car chases and police interrogations and the like - in order to give their writing greater authenticity. Both they and their mentor, Minette Walters, agreed that it worked.

On that principle, if I were to have experienced everything I've written about over the past few years, I would have ...

  • leapt off a tall building
  • been re-born
  • lived in New York
  • had an affair with a pastry chef
  • hidden a cat
  • given away a baby
  • had my nose pierced
  • taken up birdwatching
  • killed a cheating boyfriend

Needless to say, I've done none of the above. I may be a better writer if I had (I'd be in prison, actually but we won't go into that) but I don't think I need to sway across the desert on a camel, or kick-box a kangaroo, to imagine what those experiences might feel like. That's the beauty of writing fiction, as opposed to acting it and having to bulk up to accurately portray a boxer, or pile on four ounces to play Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger shot up to a gargantuan SIZE 10!!!!!! Shocking, or what??) Conveying the emotion surrounding the experience is surely what it's all about?

Obviously, research is vital for facts, procedures, dates, terminology etc - and I love that, because it allows me to fart around on the computer for weeks - but I can see where Ian McEwan was coming from.

If you're writing articles or features experience is essential, but in the world of fiction, imagination is King (or Queen, if you prefer).


Leigh said...

I wholeheartedly approve of this post! Ten out of ten, missus.

So often, one reads in (poor) fiction, all about a particular place, or person, or event, and it's so bloody obvious that that's where the author went on holiday, or who he/she met on holiday, or what he/she did on holiday.

The imagination's a much more fertile ground than real life, and, oh, so much more interesting. It ain't called fiction for nothing.

Sarah Dunnakey said...

Dead right. If we just wrote about our actual experiences what would be the point? I love doing a bit of research but I like usig it as a sort of webby thing to hang the imaginative stuff on rather than relating it verbatim. Experiencing something first hand -like surgery or police procedure could give you some useful insight into details such as smells and stuff and also how the experience made you feel, but I too would worry like Mckewan that I would be unable to step away from a journalistic decsription of what I had seen.
Without imagination our bookshelves would be thin and dull

HelenMH said...

There are some things in life you don't need to see. Someone having their arm sawn off (even under surgical conditions) is one of them!

Annieye said...

What a brilliant post Karen.

I much prefer imagination. Sometimes the research can be quite good fun. I love the reference section in our library and could spend hours in there, just browsing. How did we ever cope without the wonderful web?

Anyway, some things just have to be left to imagination - suicide springs to mind .... or snogging Sean Bean!!

Lucy Diamond said...

I agree - brilliant post, and I loved your list of things you haven't researched in person! (although you wouldn't believe the number of people who have asked me if my novel (about a bored housewife cheating on her partner) was autobiographical!! cheers for that, guys...)
Here's to imagination, I say, and experiencing dodgy things vicariously through our long-suffering characters!

Milla said...

I don't know whether to be thrilled or appalled to find this post, and know that now I have to read TWO ofyour great blogs. Thrilled I guess (teehee). Wish I hadn't missed that prog, meant to see it but hadn't realised when it was on.

Fiona said...

Thank you, thank you. I'd forgotten about Murder Most Famous.

I can see what Ian means although I do wonder if it's a clever way of avoiding keeling over - as most of us would do - when presented with a sawn off arm?

Tom Foolery said...

Very interesting post, clarkey.
Me thinks at times someone has pushed the fast forward button on my imagination resulting in a seasick feeling in the pit of my stomach or "is that just my imagination running way with me"? Tommo X (Joke!:)

KAREN said...

leigh - Why thank you madam! No I don't like it either when you can tell a writer is showing off their knowledge :o)

sarah - I LOVE the idea of research being a 'webby' thing to hang the more imaginative stuff on - nicely put!

helenmh - Exactly - there are limits :)

annieye - Snogging Sean Bean...I can feel a spot of imagining coming on right now :o)

lucy diamond - Exactly! My characters lead much more interesting lives than I do, that's for sure (most of the time, anyway) :o)

milla - Well I won't cross if you don't read both - honest :o) Yeah, that programme was on in the afternoons for some weird reason.

fiona - You're welcome. I really enjoyed it.
I hadn't thought that perhaps Mr McEwan was covering up the fact that he's squeamish!

tommo - Well, at least I understood your joke this time ;o) It was even quite good...

liz fenwick said...

Great post.....yes imagination is best but I can see how experiencing certain things would help some types of writing. Having been frightened out of your mind helps when you have to do the samething to heroine it just might not be for the same reason............ :-)

Lane said...

I think it was Louis Doughty in her Novel in a Year book that urged readers to write about what they don't know. That scared me a bit but look at Memoirs of a Geisha? Who'd have thought that was written by a Western bloke.

KAREN said...

liz - good point! I'm rubbish at writing about frightening things though - I scare far too easily :o)

lane - I loved that Louise Doughty book...lots of wisdom in there. Memoirs of a Geisha - perfect example :o)

Alis said...

Steph Penney - Costa winner last year - wrote the Tenderness of Wolves, set in the snowy North of Canada, without ever leaving England. Without ever leaving her house, virtually, as the poor woman suffers from agoraphobia. Now THAT'S what I call imagination! Write about what you know? Pfh!
Great post, Karen, ta.

Debs said...

Great post and so true.

I think rather than probably seeing certain things - the sawing off of an arm springs to mind - having one's emotions inspired by a provoking sight, smell or another trigger is probably more helpful to the imagination.

L-Plate Author said...

Karen, my book two is definitely called from my imagination but as it involves domestic violence and sometimes the scenes are so real to me, I wonder if I was born of another life!

Incidentally, for book three, which I am shortly going back to, I've had to research a pottery firm. Based in Stoke again, you wouldn't believe that I haven't got a clue what goes on in the workings of one so I asked some of the women at work if they could spare me five minutes. FOrty minutes later, the whole office was listening to their tales. I was fascinated, sometimes that's the only experience you need, the real life stories.

Would definitely have nightmares about a sawn off arm! x

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